“The mind shall banquet though the body pine,” said Longaville in Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labors Lost,” referring to the King of Navarre’s program to study classics with his courtiers while isolated within his court from the world at large.
In addition to this enforced study of books for three years, they can sleep only three hours per night, fast (only one meal per day allowed) and not consort with women.
In a sense, they are reliving classics so that the mind banquets is an apt description of current productions of two classic theatre pieces currently being performed in Washington: Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at the Folger Theatre (running through June 9) and the ancient Greek “The Oresteia” tragic cycle produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall (playing through June 2).
We begin with the comedy “Love’s Labor’s Lost” – set in Washington, D.C., though not much more than a mural of the Capitol Building really suggests this.
Like the 2000 Kenneth Branagh film of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (LLL) the plot is updated to the 1930s; references abound to period fashions and 30s-era music.
That is a relatively obscure play by Shakespeare, and written originally for an audience highly attuned to classical book learning, with ubiquitous allusions to Greco-Roman mythology. The Folger’s 1930s-styled production helps bring the play closer to our time and make it more accessible, as do other clever approaches employed by Director Vivienne Benesch.
An instance of this is when Berowne, the one scholar who questions the practicality of the king’s strict study program, complains that he is being influenced by “this wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy, this senior-junior, giant-dwarf.”
The contemporary viewer may have little idea who this “giant-dwarf” is, but Berowne points all the while to a bust of Cupid in the king’s library, and one realizes the love god’s arrow has struck Berowne and he has fallen in love Zachary Fine is outstanding as Berowne: at times whimsical, childish, serious and the common-sense anchor of the group.
In the current Folger interpretation, the vow between the courtiers becomes more a brotherly pact, and the chemistry between Berowne and actors Jack Schmitt, Matt Dallal and especially Joshua David Robinson is infectious.
Such is also true for the acting prowess of Amelia Pedlow, Kelsey Rainwater, Chani Wereley and Yesenia Iglesias as the four visiting courtly ladies with whom the “book-men of Navarre” fall in love. Particularly comic scenes in this production occur when the men secretly compose love letters and perform schoolroom antics such as the slapstick throwing of paper airplanes and dropping books off the balcony to get attention. Edmund Lewis makes for a funny Costard, acting out scenes with slightly updated language such as “Remuneration? Oh, that’s the Latin word for three dollars.”
This comedy turns serious with its themes of death and unrequited love, and the turnabout in this production is very poignant. The contemporary visual, updated approach to the play not only serves for accessibility but perhaps allows the audience to confront more directly Shakespeare’s question as to whether true knowledge is gleaned by a detached study of the classics or through engagement with life itself.
While most of the classics the book-men of Navarre study are not mentioned directly, it is likely that some of the literary works include the “The Oresteia” and other sagas of the Trojan War.
Originally written as a trilogy of plays by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, this version has been freely adapted by Ellen McLaughlin. The Greek king Agamemnon (played with dignity by Kelcey Watson) returns home victorious from the Trojan War only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra (a flamboyant Kelley Curran).
That is an act of revenge for the death of their daughter Iphigenia (played with sweetness and innocence by Simone Warren), who was slain by Agamemnon as a sacrifice to the gods that he might have winds for his ships to set sail for Troy. Enraged and desirous to avenge Agamemnon’s death, the king’s son Orestes (Josiah Bania in a tour-de-force performance) plots revenge against his mother, Clytemnestra.
While the modernization of language in “Love’s Labor’s Lost” was sparing and subtle, in the “The Oresteia” it is applied throughout the play and quite jarring. Clytemnestra, who once spoke poetically through translators like Gilbert Murray of “The Star-child of a dancing midnight born…the Greek hath taken Troy,” now voices lines in mundane language: “It seems crazy to me” and “I was cleaning the house with cleaning fluid.” The modern language, as well as clothing updated to the Victorian era and the space-electronic music, took some time to get used to, but all eventually served to bring the audience closer to the moral issues raised in the play.
By far the best part of this production was the Greek chorus. Often used in Greek tragedy as a sounding board for the protagonist’s inner thoughts or to represent the townspeople, here it had a different function: to present differing philosophical viewpoints about the moral actions of the characters.
Is there a universal justice beyond man-made laws? Does the law of nature condone or condemn revenge? Will punishing a murderer bring justice or simply further the cycle of violence? At times, this conversation among members of the chorus seems like an intense college seminar discussion about the play itself. Despite the vivid discussion of ethics, however, the resolution is not well explained and seems a bit forced – likely an issue in the play itself and not in this excellent production directed by Michael Kahn.
All in all, for a new engagement with timeless issues raised by classic plays, audiences can do little better than the current productions of “Love’s Labors Lost” and “The Oresteia.”